When I received an embargoed copy of Nick Clegg’s opening speech to the Liberal Democrat conference, as my train made its way towards Glasgow, one line immediately stood out. The Deputy Prime Minister was soon to refer disparagingly to “some people in our party” who “don’t like us being too nasty to Labour”.
It was an unmistakable reference to my interview with Tim Farron in last week’s New Statesman, in which the Liberal Democrats’ president told me: “I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories, who compare him to Kinnock.”
Referring to the unsuccessful 2011 Alternative Vote campaign, Farron added: “He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick, so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.” That Clegg took exception to the comments was not surprising; Miliband has repeatedly suggested that his head would be the price of a future Labour-Lib Dem coalition.
Two hours later, as Clegg walked out on stage, I waited in anticipation for his rebuke to Farron, the darling of the party’s left. But as he approached the relevant passage, the line was softened to “but let’s not be too nasty about Labour”. For the sake of party unity, Clegg retreated from an attack on his most likely successor as leader.
After I broke the news on the NS’s Staggers blog, the party leader’s team politely informed Farron’s staff, who responded with amusement. When the Lib Dem president signals his preference for a coalition with Labour over another with the Conservatives, he does so in the knowledge that he speaks for most of his party’s members. A poll for the grass-roots website Liberal Democrat Voice this month showed that 54 per cent of party activists would prefer a post-2015 alliance with Labour, compared to just 21 per cent for the Tories.
In his own speech earlier that day, Farron, the Lib Dems’ finest platform orator, had spoken ambitiously of his desire to “build and lead a new consensus”, in a resurrection of the pre-2010 language of progressive realignment. Should Labour become the largest party after the next general election but fall short of a majority, he has positioned himself perfectly as a Lib Dem Miliband can do business with.